Disconnecting a lead & oakum seal on a cast iron drain pipe

If you have cast iron drain (waste) pipes they are likely joined with a lead & Oakum seal. Oakum is a hemp material coated in tar, it is placed into the joint to seal it (Oakum expands when it gets wet to seal the joint). The Oakum is held in place (and the pipe joint is given some strength) by casting a bead of lead about 1″ thick around the pipe inside the hub/socket. In this picture the cast iron pipe hub is on the left.

It is possible to remove the lead and oakum. After you have gotten all the lead out and cleaned up the hub, you can place a donut (also known as a compression joint seal) in the hub of the cast iron pipe to adapt it to PVC. (Note that donuts are only usable on non-pressurized pipes, such as waste/drain lines.)

I have manually cleaned out a lead & oakum cast iron joint. It sucks. My recommendation is to cut the pipe somewhere other than at the lead & oakum joint and then use a Flexible Coupling to join it to your PVC. Yes, this introduces discontinuities in the waste water flow, and gunk may collect and build up at these edges, possibly leading to plugged pipes in the future….but that is small price to pay for avoiding having to manually unseal a lead & Oakum joint. For the gory details of how to manually disconnect and clean out a lead & Oakum joint, read on…

If you were a professional, and the lead & oakum joint was well away from any wooden structure, you would have the correct respirator and high output torches that would allow you to simply melt the lead in one go. But this is practically impossible inside walls or for the home handyman without renting some fancy equipment.

If you are reading this trying to figure out how to remove the joint, you don’t have access the the proper respirator, high output torches, or the joint is too close to a joist, stud, or other wooden structure. It is possible to physically remove the lead by drilling into it every 1/4″ or so to separate it out, and then chipping out each separate piece with a 1/2″ or 1/4″ chisel. This takes a long time and a lot of patience and effort. If you do not have easy access to the joint (for example, if it is in between two joists or studs) you will have to use a right-angle drill. Use a reciprocating saw (sawzall) to trim the incoming spigot/pipe that you are replacing about 1/2″ away from the hub so that you can easily drill around it.

Re-evaluate if you REALLY want to keep this joint in place. Why not tear out another panel of drywall and just cut the pipe and use a flexible coupling to join up to it? Really, replacing drywall is relatively easy compared to slowly chipping out the lead from one of these joints with a drill bit. Of course, to break cast iron pipe cleanly requires a specialized pipe breaker tool that you would probably have to rent.

If you decide that due to space or other constraints (such as a concrete pad) you NEED to save and re-use the joint….find the cheapest drill bits you can. Don’t use your fancy titanium carbide drill bits for this job. You want steel drill bits that are harder than the lead, but otherwise as soft and non-brittle as possible. Otherwise, when you are drilling and put any amount of sideways pressure on them, the drill bits will shatter because they are super high hardness (and very brittle). This leaves a solid chunk of very hard to remove super high hardness metal embedded in your lead seal. Don’t use a drill bit as a reamer! After you finally get the lead chipped away enough to remove the inner pipe, the inside of your hub will still have a thin ring of lead all the way around. Remove all of the Oakum using pliers, scrapers or a rotary tool. (Because Oakum will burst into flame if you get it hot and expose it to air, it’s covered in tar after all…)

At this point you can use a small blowtorch to slowly melt the remaining lead. Use the torch INSIDE the pipe, and have a fire extinguisher and a bucket of water standing by! Drops of lead will start to fall from the ring. Eventually the cast iron pipe itself will get hot enough that it will melt the lead touching the pipe. Now you can use a screwdriver or chisel to pry the entire ring of lead out of the pipe. (You’ll probably have to hit the inside of the hub with a good scrubbing from a Brillo pad or sandpaper, AFTER IT COOLS OFF.)

Now you have a clean hub connection to fit your donut into. (Don’t you wish you had cheated with a flexible connector now?) Test the fit and make sure everything will line up first.

Then use some cooking oil spray inside the cast iron pipe hub to make it easier to hammer the donut in. Lay a bead of silicon caulk around the donut (it will spread out and need to be cleaned up around the outside once you are done hammering the donut in.) Hammer the donut in using a large hammer (or side of a small hammer if in an enclosed space between studs.)

Now you can chamfer the end of the PVC pipe to make it easier to go into the seal/donut. Mark your PVC pipe with inch markings so you can visually tell how far it has gone into the seal. Spray some more cooking oil inside the donut, place a bead of silicon caulk around your PVC pipe, and hammer it in.

Now it’s just a matter of using PVC solvent and cement to glue various PVC pieces together to reach your drain…

13 thoughts on “Disconnecting a lead & oakum seal on a cast iron drain pipe

  1. I have a joint which, after consideration of all the options, will need to be drilled and hammered out. Thank you for the information that tells me how to deal with a painful problem…..

    • I guess that depends entirely upon your sewer line. I had not considered that as a potential danger when I was doing the work (I was much more worried about burning the wooden studs the pipes were routed through) but I guess it is a small posibility. In my case the joint I was removing was above a trap, so gas coming in wasn’t much of an issue.

      If you were really worried about it I guess you could place some type of expandable air-tight plug farther down the pipe (with a good cable to pull it back out!), or use some type of portable gas detector before lighing the torch.

  2. it’s safer to delead the pipe with a drill bit. normal drill bits work fine just make sure you go really slow and take your time. drill all the way in until you feel no resistance. that will be all the way through the lead. then drill another hole about half inch away . then tap out lead with a chistle. takes about 30 minutes

    when chistling out the lead between the holes you drilled use a very small hammer and a small chistle. tap lightly to avoid damaging the pipe.
    after approximately 3/4 of the lead is removed around the pipe (from 3 oclock to 12 oclock) the pipe will move freely and can be wiggled out

    drill rotations should be very slow, lowest setting and least torque. speed is approx 2 rotations per second

    you should also coat the area with a cutting oil. marvel mystery oil works great for this. clean your bit frequently and if it gets stuck put the drill in reverse and pull out slowly.

    when finished use a shop vac to remove detritus from the pipe

  3. Thank you so much for posting this instruction. I went through three drill bits to get a little over half way around. At that point a small piece of lead was exposed enough for me to pull the rest out with pliers and one tug. Thanks again! Saved me an enormous plumber bill, I’m sure.

  4. Thank you for this post. I’m going to be trying this today. One question I have is: is the donut that goes back into the cast iron joint good enough to be buried back under concrete?

    We had the plumber out yesterday to move a shower p trap and what was going to cost us $850 jumped to over $2000 because of a bunch of cast iron fittings. The shower p trap goes into a Y Cast Iron joint which then goes into a cast iron t join one end leads to a drain on the other side of the wall) and the other end leads to another cast iron joint which goes another few feet and then I’m sure has another t joint that comes in from the clothes washer. The plumber couldn’t break down why he was charging what he was charging and instead of having more concrete torn up in my bathroom with the likelihood of the costs going up even further we told him we were going to get quotes.

    I don’t mind spending the time breaking the lead joint into the Y joint if I can put this donut in to the y-joint and then get the p trap set back up for the shower which will then be reset in concrete.

    Thanks for any insights.

    • I’m not a plumber so I really don’t know.

      I’ve seen plumbers use flexible couplings on drain pipes that they bury 10′ underground on the main drain line of a house, so I’m sure the flexible coupling would be fine, and I suspect that the donut is just as good. (Possibly not as long lived as a lead seal…but probably 50+ years….)

  5. After cutting the source pipe pretty flush to the joint using a grinder with a cutoff wheel, I was able to cut the pipe from the inside using a carbide tipped oscillating tool. Once the pipe was split into two, it released easily from the lead and oakum and the lead and oakum was easy to scrape out. This is on a 3″ drain/soil pipe and I used a bosch brand carbide oscillating tool blade for the cut.

  6. I spent about eight hours straight on a similar cast iron pipe which comes up from the slab in my basement right between two load bearing studs. I had to jack the joists and cut out one of the studs to access the pipe. After about five hours I did a quick google search on oakum and some of the results said that it might contain asbestos. My house was built in the 70’s when asbestos was still being used for everything. Since I was drilling lead I was chasing the drill with my hepa vac and also wearing my p100 respirator, but I still don’t like the idea of drilling into asbestos. As with the last poster, I ended up giving up with the drill bit approach (after loosing about eight bits) and cut out the joining pipe. If I had it to do all over again knowing what I do now, I would probably just cut above the joint and used a fernco coupler and just deal with the ramifications.

  7. Very nice post, thank you. I drilled out a plug using the method that you described. Although I never had to melt the lead, because it wasn’t sticking to the iron. Then, I removed a T-section that was below the plug using the same method. Now, I want to put the plug back in where the T-section came out of. So, it is going to be a cast-iron to cast-iron connection. Any suggestions on how to do that using modern materials instead of oakum and lead?

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